The way that the Buffalo Sabres have handled their young players this season has been... interesting.
Fans have beaten their collective heads against the wall trying to get a handle on what the logic has been behind some of the decisions being made. Those who continue to support the organization’s current path have cited a “patient” approach as the end-all-be-all explanation for what we’ve seen so far, but at what point does perceived patience become flat-out stubbornness?
Few people would disagree with the assertion that there are several under-performing veteran regulars on the Sabres roster right now. At the beginning of the season, most people were okay with the projected lineup as it was constructed. After all, pretty much everyone had this season pegged as a development year for the blue-and-gold, and expectations were surprisingly tempered. As the team began to experience success and reveal their true potential in the form of both wins, and analytical data, the “patient” approach slowly came under fire.
Fast forward to February. The Sabres are still very much in the playoff hunt, but the same issue of veteran passengers on the roster remains prevalent. Prior to the new year, Jason Botterill indicated that the team would dive into the AHL ranks to give players an opportunity to contribute. With 27 games remaining on the schedule, that statement appears more and more hollow. It’s not as though certain players who struggled in the beginning of the year are suddenly more competent, which could feasibly inspire Botterill to hold-off on making change. In fact, the issue has been exacerbated as the team has fallen further and further out of playoff position.
Even on the rare occurrence of a promotion from Rochester, the way that the coaching staff has decided to deploy (or not deploy) the players receiving the call-up has been rather head-scratching. C.J. Smith is a prime example. In six appearances this season, the 24-year-old has registered two goals. That total doesn’t exactly jump off the table, but his contribution as a high-energy presence in the bottom-six has been a breath of fresh air in limited action. During his most recent recall, he’s done an excellent job of driving the pace of the game and getting himself into optimal positions on the ice. Great, right? That’s exactly what you want to see from him.
Inexplicably, Smith was sent back to the press box following the team’s overtime loss against Carolina on February 7. To hold him out of both games in a back-to-back this weekend is especially bizarre. Some will try to justify scratching him by using a popular cliche like “learning from the press box” but that theory doesn’t hold water in this case. The simple fact of the matter is that this regime continues to favor under-performing veterans over their young talent. What’s even worse is how this approach has been particularly obvious when it comes to players that were acquired by Botterill.
Take Vladimir Sobotka for example. This is a player who, as we all know, came over in the infamous trade this offseason that sent Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues. In 52 games, the 31-year-old has contributed 10 points. His last goal came on November 8 which marks a 36-game drought. It’s not as though he’s helping defensively either. His relative Corsi of -7.11 is the worst mark on the team (excluding the recently demoted Remi Elie).
Who is the organization protecting by continually deploying one of the most irrelevant, ineffective players that the Sabres have iced in the last five years? For a player like Smith, the patience argument is completely nonsensical given his age and the fact that he’s played nearly 100 games a the AHL level so, what gives?
Sobotka isn’t the only case of a Botterill acquisition who has underwhelmed this season. Marco Scandella has come under just as much (if not more) criticism while Lawrence Pilut and Nathan Beaulieu have spent considerable time on the healthy scratch list. The favoritism may extend beyond just experience level. As the season marches on, it appears more and more like the players who Botterill brought over via trade are those with the longest leash.
In fact, you could even use Tage Thompson’s continued NHL presence as an argument against veteran favoritism and instead strengthen the theory that the organization is forcing their trade acquisitions into the lineup. The best move for Thompson might actually be a stint in Rochester so he can hone his craft and correct his shortcomings, but for some reason the “patience” approach doesn’t apply to the 21-year-old. Seems inconsistent, no?
There may or may not be anything to that observation (nobody outside of the front office knows precisely what the “plan” is) but if that’s actually the case, then there is massive cause for concern about what type of logical track this regime is operating under.
Save for a handful of fans who remain steadfast in their stance that the value of the O’Reilly trade cannot be accurately assessed until we see how the first-round pick (as well as Thompson’s eventual ceiling) turns out, most would agree that it doesn’t look good so far. At the risk of beating a dead horse, (bear with me) that trade looks like a loss. Good general managers have made bad trades. It happens. What good general managers don’t do is force inferior assets into their lineup solely because they were part of said trades, especially when viable alternatives exist in the AHL. There is a long line of failed general managers who faltered as a result of remaining overly-loyal to “their guys”.
It’s nearly impossible to argue that players like Smith, Danny O’Regan, or even Victor Olofsson could somehow make the Sabres’ depth scoring issues worse. Despite squeezing more production out of the second line since realizing that Sam Reinhart is capable of driving his own trio (something that many knowledgeable fans clamored for months ago), consistent depth production on offense is still an issue.
Another massive issue that still exists (and continues to hold the team back, as evidenced by their 0-for-5 performance against the Winnipeg Jets yesterday) is the lack of production on the power-play. If only the organization had a bonafide goal-scoring, power-play specialist tearing it up in Rochester. Now, when it comes to a player like Olofsson (in case you couldn’t already tell who I was referring to), the patience argument inevitably rears its ugly head once again. Heck, we’re talking about a guy who is in his first season of North American action.
That line of thinking made sense when fans were clamoring for him to be promoted to the big squad back in November, but at this point in the campaign, what’s the harm of giving him the chance that he’s certainly earned? If it appears that he’s not ready, just send him back down with things to work on, no harm done. If he succeeds, then you’ve not only addressed a portion of your depth scoring woes, but you’ve also added an upgrade on the man-advantage.
As clock ticks down on the 2018-19 season, the possibility of these players not getting an extended look this year becomes more and more likely. Even if the organization never expected to be a playoff contender this season, they’re in the thick of things with two months left. Despite the likelihood of a first-round drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, were the Sabres to qualify, a taste of playoff action would serve as valuable experience (and a confidence/morale boost) for the team’s young core. Making a minor adjustment late in the season to try and attain that goal wouldn’t be enough of a deviation from the patient approach to undo any developmental progress that has been made.
I’ll summarize by saying that any reasonable fan can appreciate a tempered, calculated approach toward player development. What’s less easy to accept is a failure to adjust said plan when developing players surpass expectations. This isn’t even just about the playoff race. It extends beyond that. It’s about setting the precedent that veterans aren’t immune to having their playing time reduced, should they fail to produce. It’s about rewarding your young players for strong play. And above all else, it’s about putting your team in a position to not only succeed now, but in the future as well.
There’s a fine line between patience and stubbornness. The Sabres, as an organization, are toeing that line.